For most of my life, I have been a translator between black and white cultures — attempting to make sense of complicated nuances to people who were struggling to understand each other.
On Monday morning, about a dozen friends, family members, and co-workers emailed me. They were stumped — so here I am again, your friendly cultural interpreter to make sense of things.
The BET Awards were Sunday night. Even though BET is no longer black-owned (Viacom owns BET), the BET Awards are one of those sacred nights where unapologetic blackness is celebrated without explanation or hesitancy. Social media has breathed new life into such awards shows, allowing millions of people to share each high and low moment together on Twitter.
First off, the show started with an unannounced powerhouse performance of “Freedom” by Beyoncê and Kendrick Lamar — perhaps the two best possible performers the show could ever have. This set the tone for the night. At that point, it appeared that black pride was on 10 and could go no higher — until Jesse Williams, the actor and activist, gave what I legitimately believe was the most powerful, profound awards ceremony speech ever delivered.
In it, he not only called out police brutality and cultural appropriation — that happens a lot — he did it using words that felt like they had been written by James Baldwin and delivered by Malcolm X. I know Jesse and think of him as a friend, but his speech has stuck with me all day. If the past two years represent the new Civil Rights Movement, Jesse’s speech was a top-tier moment. It was that important. Furthermore, Jesse Williams is universally respected in the movement because all of us see him actually doing the work and taking real risks to advance the cause.
I’m not trying to overstate it, but it was a profound and important moment that many of us will never forget.
Enter Justin Timberlake.
He was presumably sitting at home watching the BET Awards. He, too, was clearly moved by Jesse’s speech and wanted the world to know about it.
Then, wanting to give his own Amen to the moment, Timberlake simply wrote a basic tweet saying “#Inspired.”
All by itself, this seems relatively harmless and benign. It particularly seemed that way to my white friends and colleagues.
But moments have context and I need to remind you that when Timberlake entered the conversation publicly to his 55 million followers on Twitter, he did so at a precise moment, 10:37 p.m. to be exact, where black folk were at “peak pride level” and were not going to suffer fools lightly.
Timberlake’s tweet, if it had no context or history attached to it, would indeed be harmless, but millions of people feel that he is actually guilty of many of the exact aspects of cultural appropriation that Jesse Williams was talking about. The BET Awards themselves were created, in part, so that black artists could be given the due credit they deserve.
Justin Timberlake is talented. He’s actually really good at what he does, but a huge part of what he does is black music, often written and produced by black people, choreographed by black people, and performed with an overwhelmingly black band and dance crew.
Here’s the section of Jesse’s speech that is perhaps most relevant:
“We’ve been floating this country on credit for centuries, yo. And we’re done watching and waiting while this invention called whiteness uses and abuses us, burying black people out of sight and out of mind while extracting our culture, our dollars, our entertainment like oil, black gold. Ghettoizing and demeaning our creations, then stealing them, gentrifying our genius, and then trying us on like costumes before discarding our bodies like rinds of strange fruit. The thing is though, that just because we’re magic doesn’t mean we’re not real.”
When Jesse said this, black folk were not imagining pretend faces, but were thinking of real artists and brands who’ve made billions of dollars mimicking black culture without any of the responsibilities to go along with it. We say it like this, “America loves black culture, but not black people.”
Generally, Justin Timberlake has gotten a pass for this. Because he has rarely been brought up in the same conversations as people like Iggy Azaelea for cultural appropriation, maybe he didn’t know just how many people hold him just a few notches lower than her. Whereas white rappers like Eminem and Macklemore have both openly addressed that they have benefitted from white privilege in their lyrics and interviews, no such thing has been widely shared from Timberlake if it exists.
It seems, in some ways, that Justin Timberlake has gotten famous and rich off of mimicking black moves and sounds without ever really standing up for black people when it has mattered the most.
So, when Timberlake tweeted that he was “inspired” by Jesse’s speech, it just struck a lot of people as odd at best and grossly aloof at worst. I think Justin Timberlake was genuinely inspired when he heard the speech, but that when he heard the last part about “trying us on like costumes” that it probably never occurred to him that some think he does just that.
Does he do it maliciously? I don’t think so. But has Timberlake blown up and benefited, in part, because of white privilege — absolutely. This isn’t debatable.
When someone challenged Timberlake on this very thing on Twitter, he responded with what appeared to be friendly condescension. He said, “Oh, you sweet soul. The more you realize that we are the same, the more we can have a conversation. Bye.”
In a speech where Jesse Williams found one hundred beautiful ways to say “Black Lives Matter,” Just Timberlake responded to his first criticism with his own version of “All Lives Matter.”
In subsequent tweets, while his intentions again seemed pure, he doubled down on the “All Lives Matter” motif saying “I was truly inspired by Jesse Williams’ speech because I really do feel that we are all one… A human race.”
Of course we are all human beings. That’s obvious. Jesse’s entire speech was about how black human beings are habitually mistreated and abused and how the treasurers of black people are first demeaned, then stolen and adjusted and profited off of.
Shorter Shaun King: “It’s a black thing. You honkeys will never understand it.”
I’m sorry, but the BET awards is the 1% of black America enjoying wealth and privilege that 99% of white people will never partake of.
There is an old saying that “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.” It’s not racial or cultural, it’s natural and normal. When humans interact with each other they “appropriate” each other’s languages, religions, technology, and culture. We share our culture more readily than we share our genes, and there are no “pure” races..
Progs are schizophrenic. They advocate multiculturalism and demand that white culture share their culture with other races, but get mad if white people try to share the culture of other races. What’s yours is ours and what’s mine is mine.
I’m thinking we should all share and share alike. Nobody bashes black athletes for appropriating white culture when they play professional sports, but baseball, basketball, football and golf were all created by white people.
If Justin Timberlake with cornrows is appropriating black culture, what do you call black women with straight blond hair?